The 43rd Mendel Medal was awarded to theoretical physicist Sylvester James Gates, Jr., Nov. 15. “in recognition of his influential work in supersymmetry, supergravity and string theory, as well as his advocacy for science and science education in the United States and  abroad.”

Established in 1929, the Mendel Medal is awarded by the University annually to a scientist who embodies the values of the Augustinian friar who lends his name to the University’s science center, Gregor Johann Mendel. The award recognized Gates as an outstanding scientist who does not consider faith and science to be mutually exclusive. By one estimate, approximately 40 percent of scientists are also believers. Past recipients include four Nobel Prize winners, a scientist partially responsible for the creation of the big bang theory, a pioneer heart surgeon who designed equipment for patients experiencing aneurysms, a scientist who discovered the laser and many more. 

 Gates is a professor of physics and director of Center of String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, and also serves on The U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the Maryland State Board of Education. Additionally, Gates has written and co-written over 200 articles and is the co-author of “Super Space,” the first comprehensive book on Super Symmetry. Gates is also a winner of the National Medal of Science, the highest honor the United States can give to a scientist. It is not just these many scholarly accomplishments that attracted the attention of the University’s Mendel Medal Committee. Gates is also interested in the intersection of faith and science. 

After listening to Gates’s appearance on Krista Tippet’s radio show “On Being,” Rev. Kail Ellis, O.S.A., vice president for Academic Affairs and chair of the Mendel Medal Committee, knew that Gates was an attractive candidate. Ellis described being “very impressed” by Gates’s discussion about the role of science in belief. Gates spoke of the unpredictability of life and the unexpected and generous gifts we all receive throughout our lives, a concept which Ellis associated with the Catholic belief in grace. He therefore sent the interview to the committee who all agreed that Gates was the perfect candidate for 2013. He accepted, and said he was excited to be recognized among so many distinguished past recipients. 


Gates delivered a lecture in the Villanova Room last Friday titled “On the Uncertainty of Disbelief.” He began by explaining that he is not qualified to explore all of the deep and mysterious concepts behind religion, citing Albert Einstein who said “a physicist makes a poor philosopher,” and adding that a physicist would probably make “an even worse theologian.” Nevertheless, Gates seemed to have many profound ideas concerning the intersection of religion and science, and immediately explained that the two do not have to exist in a “non-overlapping magisteria” as scientist Stephen Jay Gould once theorized. In fact, Gates explained a very simple and common intersection of the two when he told the story of losing a loved one. Gates explained that if a loved one died we would first probably pick up a phone to make a call and give condolences, and then we might say a prayer. This is a very basic example of technology (science) and faith working in tandem. 

Gates went on to explain that the nature of science is to measure things and find the “truth” behind nature and our world, but in reality, science is all about theories. A good scientist would tell you that nothing is truly certain, for there is room for uncertainty even in the theories in which scientists are most confident. Gates explained that science is therefore “protective of religion,” because science cannot completely refute religious concepts. He sees the value in both science and faith, explaining that “an investment in science is an insurance policy that we will defend our species…science is how we will protect ourselves,” meaning that in the face of a crisis like global warming, science is in fact the only sure thing we can rely on to survive. Gates believes that the best scientists, however, are often people of faith, for they are the ones whose morals are strong, and these people of “deep faith are capable of making contributions to science” from which we may all benefit. These are the types of scientists we should celebrate in the modern western world, he said.

Gates went on to explain that religion is also protective of science, explaining that even if a scientist witnessed a miracle, he or she would want to witness that miracle hundreds of times over and would still not be able to declare that such miracles are possible. This is because a scientist will only recognize a concept that is concrete and explainable, meaning that there is actually a limit to science, for Gates explained that “you can always find something you cannot measure.”

“If you are a scientist, you therefore have to be uncertain about your disbelief,” Gates said, because “science is as uncertain as the people who create it.”

Patrick Maggitti, dean of the Villanova School of Business spoke of “how much time and effort that Father Ellis puts in to getting world-class speakers here for the Mendel Medal.” He said, “These folks get tens of thousands of dollars for their speaking engagements and because of Father’s dogged pursuit and charm, they agree to come here. It’s an amazing effort that he puts into this.”

Ellis radiated passion and excitement as he spoke of the tradition of the Mendel Medal and described his pride in the University for presenting it. The Mendel Medal is an avenue for scientists to be recognized in a unique way, and for the university to be recognized in a larger community for its role in promoting scientific scholarship and achievement. Ellis said he considers this award and the publication of articles about it to be an important part of raising national public awareness of Villanova’s faculty, scholarship and outstanding undergraduate and graduate academic programs.


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